Kate Roberts Ph.D.

Savvy Parenting

How to Motivate Children Through Purpose

Research indicates that students learn best when given a purpose for learning.

Posted Nov 08, 2015

Parent-teacher conferences are held at this time of the year. This can be a stressful time for both parents and children. When parents attend these meetings and learn that their child is not doing well, often they are at a loss as to how to help their child improve.  Teachers may say things like “He needs to learn his math facts” or “She needs to do her homework”. Unfortunately for many parents simply learning about the areas where their child is struggling is not enough to automatically know what to do next or how to help their child be more successful.  

There are different ways to “motivate" children to become better students.  Studies support that notion that parents and others  motivate children most successfully by creating an atmosphere that promotes self-motivation. This requires finding the “hook” for learning that resonates for that particular individual student.

Some parents believe that intimidation and fear tactics to help motivate children perform better. This may work in the short-term, but it certainly will not sustain motivation and it may eventually create resentment. This is the “do it or else” parenting method and many strong willed children rebel against this approach. Attempting to strong arm a child to do what’s expected sets up a series of power struggles that will interfere with the parent-child connection and will not likely result in the desired outcome.

Another approach is to bribe children to improve performance through rewards and consequences. In this approach, parents may offer to pay children to earn the better grades. This may result in the desired outcome in the short-term, but what happens once the rewards are removed? These children will grow up to expect a prize for their performance instead of experiencing internal rewards from hard work and subsequent positive outcomes.

The most effective way to help children reach their goals and become internally motivated is to teach them about purpose. Humans are naturally curious and therefore making the connection between the intrinsic value of learning and purpose is not difficult, especially when grades and performance are not overemphasized and learning is seen as the ultimate goal. When helping children become more engaged in learning and therefore better students, parents help children understand how and why learning is important for them.

While it may seem daunting to motivate children by through teaching them about how learning relates to their own internal purpose, doing this teaches children to take ownership over their choices and behavior. It’s a long-term solution and not a short–term or quick fix.

Here are four ways to proceed:

1. Role model purpose. Parents who want to motivate children through internal purpose will have an advantage when they are able to demonstrate this through their own actions.  Put simply, live an intentional life where hard work and effort result in feeling positive even when the goals aren’t always met the first time around or quickly.


2. State the purpose. Have your child define who they want to be and how they want to live and help them to identify how they can achieve this through their daily actions and what they need to learn to accomplish their dreams.


3. Explain the why. Some children will not always readily make the connection between geometry homework and reaching their goal of being a strong thinker or getting into college or developing some other practical life skills. Parents have to fill in the gaps and make the connections about why and how certain activities are essential for them to reach their larger life goals.


4. Reflect back. When your child demonstrates hard work, even doing something as simple as helping you carry the groceries, reflect this back to them in a manner that allows them to see their own abilities. You can say something like “Those grocery bags are heavy and I’m amazed that you were able to carry them inside”. This allows the child to make the attribution internally between their behavior and their physical strength, resulting in thoughts like “I’m really strong”, that come from within and not from outside themselves.

Parents can become  discouraged when they learn that their child is under performing in school. As difficult as it is to confront underachievement, it is an opportunity to focus on a child’s character and help him to develop internal motivation that will serve him much beyond school work and into all aspects of his life.

Yeager, D.S. et al, University of Texas, March, 2014, Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation.

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